Scary Chip Flaws Raise Spectre of Meltdown

Apple, Google, Microsoft and other tech giants have released updates for a pair of serious security flaws present in most modern computers, smartphones, tablets and mobile devices. Here’s a brief rundown on the threat and what you can do to protect your devices.

At issue are two different vulnerabilities, dubbed “Meltdown” and “Spectre,” that were independently discovered and reported by security researchers at Cyberus Technology, Google, and the Graz University of Technology. The details behind these bugs are extraordinarily technical, but a Web site established to help explain the vulnerabilities sums them up well enough:

“These hardware bugs allow programs to steal data which is currently processed on the computer. While programs are typically not permitted to read data from other programs, a malicious program can exploit Meltdown and Spectre to get hold of secrets stored in the memory of other running programs. This might include your passwords stored in a password manager or browser, your personal photos, emails, instant messages and even business-critical documents.”

“Meltdown and Spectre work on personal computers, mobile devices, and in the cloud. Depending on the cloud provider’s infrastructure, it might be possible to steal data from other customers.”

The Meltdown bug affects every Intel processor shipped since 1995 (with the exception of Intel Itanium and Intel Atom before 2013), although researchers said the flaw could impact other chip makers. Spectre is a far more wide-ranging and troublesome flaw, impacting desktops, laptops, cloud servers and smartphones from a variety of vendors. However, according to Google researchers, Spectre also is considerably more difficult to exploit.

In short, if it has a computer chip in it, it’s likely affected by one or both of the flaws. For now, there don’t appear to be any signs that attackers are exploiting either to steal data from users. But researchers warn that the weaknesses could be exploited via Javascript — meaning it might not be long before we see attacks that leverage the vulnerabilities being stitched into hacked or malicious Web sites.

Microsoft this week released emergency updates to address Meltdown and Spectre in its various Windows operating systems. But the software giant reports that the updates aren’t playing nice with many antivirus products; the fix apparently is causing the dreaded “blue screen of death” (BSOD) for some antivirus users. In response, Microsoft has asked antivirus vendors who have updated their products to avoid the BSOD crash issue to install a special key in the Windows registry. That way, Windows Update can tell whether it’s safe to download and install the patch.

But not all antivirus products have been able to do this yet, which means many Windows users likely will not be able to download this patch immediately. If you run Windows Update and it does not list a patch made available on Jan 3, 2018, it’s likely your antivirus software is not yet compatible with this patch.

Google has issued updates to address the vulnerabilities on devices powered by its Android operating system. Meanwhile, Apple has said that all iOS and Mac systems are vulnerable to Meltdown and Spectre, and that it has already released “mitigations” in iOS 11.2, macOS 10.13.2, and tvOS 11.2 to help defend against Meltdown. The Apple Watch is not impacted. Patches to address this flaw in Linux systems were released last month.

Many readers appear concerned about the potential performance impact that applying these fixes may have on their devices, but my sense is that most of these concerns are probably overblown for regular end users. Forgoing security fixes over possible performance concerns doesn’t seem like a great idea considering the seriousness of these bugs. What’s more, the good folks at benchmarking site Tom’s Hardware say their preliminary tests indicate that there is “little to no performance regression in most desktop workloads” as a result of applying available fixes.

Meltdownattack.com has a full list of vendor advisories. The academic paper on Meltdown is here (PDF); the paper for Spectre can be found at this link (PDF). Additionally, Google has published a highly technical analysis of both attacks. Cyberus Technology has their own blog post about the threats.